AUGUSTA, Ga — Let’s get real here, people: Tiger Woods hasn’t played competitively in more than two months. He hasn’t contended in more than 16 months (losing in a playoff to Zach Johnson in the World Challenge) and hasn’t won since August of 2013. The last time he won the Masters? YouTube didn’t even exist yet. This season, meanwhile, has been an unmitigated disaster: He’s played all of 47 holes in competition, missing the cut by a mile in Phoenix and WD’ing after 11 holes at Torrey Pines. So we can all agree, Tiger can’t possibly win the 79th Masters, can he? Of course he can! Here are five reasons why.
1. THE PRESSURE IS OFF
Well, relatively speaking. Sure, the masses are still glued to Tiger, but for the first time in forever he’s not a betting favorite in the tournament. Expectations are low. Adam Scott, the 2013 champion, was asked Tuesday about who he believes are his main challengers this week. Scott rattled off Bubba and Rory (“of course”), and then cited Patrick Reed, Jimmy Walker and last year’s runner-up Jordan Spieth. Oh, and Dustin Johnson. (“You think this course would suit him really well.”) But nary a mention of Woods. “It’s a little bit unknown with Tiger,” Scott said. A little bit?
2. HE’S GOT HIS GROOVE BACK
We’ve seen no evidence yet of Tiger’s new swing clicking in competition. But everyone seems to have a breathless tale of his resurgence. (Surely you heard about his worst-ball 66 at Medalist?!) Also encouraging: his yip-free practice rounds this week at Augusta. Sure, practice rounds are just practice rounds and the yips tend to flare up when shots actually mean something, but it’s not like Tiger has been playing in solitude at Augusta. He has swarms of spectators examining his every step. “The easiest fix is short game. He’s won numerous tournaments because of his short game,” Phil Mickelson said Tuesday. “I just don’t think it’s a hard thing to get back.” According to Woods, his recent struggles have been tied not to any kind of mental block, but to the process of grooving his new swing. He’s been stuck between “release patterns” as he’s transitioned from Sean Foley to Chris Como. Over the last month, he says, through grueling, daylong-practice sessions he’s remedied that. “I just had to hammer it out and make sure it was engrained,” Woods said.
3. HE’S HEALTHY
We think. Tiger said Tuesday that he’s been working on his balky back with a therapist, and he’s exhibited no signs of gimpiness so far this week. “All good and ready to go,” he said. Plus, if you believe Chris DiMarco, Woods’s back issues at Torrey Pines (where he withdrew after 11 holes) weren’t the real issue. “He was embarrassed to be out there,” DiMarco said. It’s hard to imagine Tiger raising the white flag halfway through a Masters round.
4. HE’S LONG AGAIN
Regardless of the state of the rest of Tiger’s game, there’s no question he has some newfound pop in his driver. (Said Mickelson, who played behind Woods during the Tuesday practice session: “His speed is up, the ball is flying long and straight and it looks like he’s swinging free without any type of manipulation.”) Woods hasn’t played enough in 2015 to read too much into his driving stats, but his driving distance average in Phoenix was a gaudy 323 yards. That was 35 yards longer than the field average. That added oomph will serve him well this week. Yes, short-knockers like Zach Johnson and Mike Weir have had success at Augusta, but this is a bomber’s course. Having mid-irons into the par-5s as opposed to hybrids is a distinct advantage.
5. ‘NEVER UNDERESTIMATE TIGER’
Mark O’Meara said that this week. O’Meara was the original Tiger whisperer before Notah Begay inherited the role, so you’d be wise not to read too much into his Tiger analyses. Still, Marko’s point is well taken. However you feel about the state of Tiger’s game, he still burns to compete and he would love nothing more than to squash his doubters this week. Think of Tiger as Reggie Miller and pretty much everyone else as Spike Lee. Game on.